SALT - Tuesday, 11 Adar 5781 - February 23, 2021

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (10b) comments that the word “va-yehi” (“it was,” or “it happened”) is used in the Tanakh as an expression portending calamity.  One example brought by the Gemara is the opening verse of Megilat Ester, which famously introduces the Purim story with the words, “Va-yehi bi-ymei Achashveirosh” – “It was during the times of Achashveirosh…”  The Megilla proceeds to tell of the rise of Haman and his edict to have the Jews annihilated, and thus it begins with the word “va-yehi,” which foretells tragedy.
            Rav Yaakov of Lisa (author of the Netivot Ha-mishpat), in his Megilat Setarim commentary to Megilat Ester, notes a distinction between this instance of “va-yehi” and the other examples mentioned by the Gemara.  In this instance, the calamity portended by the word “va-yehi” – Haman’s edict – unfolds much later in the text.  The phrase “Va-yehi bi-ymei Achashveirosh” introduces the story of Achashveirosh’s feast, during which his queen disobeyed him, prompting him to select a new queen, a process which led to Ester becoming queen of Persia.  This incident actually prepared the Jews for the solution to the crisis which arose afterward with Haman’s rise to power in the empire.  Thus, the word “va-yehi” in this instance introduces not a story of crisis, but rather the story that ended up resolving the crisis.  By contrast, the Gemara cites the example of the opening verse of Megilat Rut, which states, “Va-yehi bi-ymei shefot ha-shofteim va-yehi ra’av ba-aretz” – “It was during the time when the judges ruled, and there was a famine in the land.”  Here, the crisis is mentioned immediately following the introductory word “va-yehi.”  Likewise, the Gemara points to the verse in Sefer Bereishit (14:1), “Va-yehi bi-ymei Amrafel” (“It was in the times of Amrafel”), which introduces the story of a deadly war involving nine kingdoms.  Here, too, the calamity – the military conflict – is mentioned immediately after the word “va-yehi.”  The other examples cited by the Gemara also follow this pattern – of the word “va-yehi” directly introducing a situation of trouble.  The question thus arises as to why the Gemara considered “Va-yehi bi-ymei Achashveirosh” as an example of this pattern, when the calamity is mentioned only much later in the text, and this verse introduces a story which actually yielded a beneficial outcome.
            Rav Yaakov of Lisa creatively suggests that in truth, there is a calamity mentioned already in this introductory verse, which continues, “He was Achashveirosh, who reigned from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces.”  The Jews faced a dire threat because the entire territory throughout which they were dispersed was part of Achashveirosh’s empire.  Had the region under Achashveirosh’s control not been so vast, only a portion of the Jewish Nation would have come under threat.  The danger arose because Achashveirosh reigned over such a vast area which encompassed all Jewish populations at that time.  This reality – the entirety of Am Yisrael living under the governance of a single ruler – was itself a crisis, as it directly threatened our nation’s future.  And so, indeed, the word “va-yehi” at the beginning of Megilat Ester introduces a calamity – the fragile state of a Jewish Nation dependent entirely on the grace of a single monarch.
            This concept can be applied also to our lives as individuals.  We face grave danger when we make our state of contentment dependent entirely on a single factor.  If our sense of self-worth, self-fulfillment or general satisfaction hinges on a single condition, then we are at risk for emotional “annihilation.”  When Yaakov feared a violent attack by Eisav, he divided his family and property into two camps, figuring that in case Eisav came and succeeded in killing and destroying one camp, “the remaining camp will survive” (Bereishit 32:8).  Some have suggested that Yaakov’s strategy conveys the broader message of being able to “salvage” contentment and happiness even when we experience loss or disappointment in one or several areas of life.  In order to maintain our joy and vitality, we need to view our lives as consisting of numerous different “camps,” from which we can derive enjoyment and satisfaction independently, even if the other “camps” are “lost.”  Even if one or several areas of life fail to deliver the happiness and fulfillment we expected, we should still be able to experience happiness and fulfillment from other areas of life.  And thus we should try to avoid the vulnerable situation described in the first verse of Megilat Ester – where our overall wellbeing is controlled by just a single “king.”  Instead, we should strive to derive joy and fulfillment from the various different aspects of our lives, so that even if some disappoint, we can draw happiness from the others.